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Tag Archives: torture

Dutton’s message: torture works

Yesterday I had a Twitter conversation about Kathryn Bigelow’s movie, Zero Dark Thirty, which was shown on SBS last night.

Many angry critics have described the film as CIA propaganda advocating torture, and accused Bigelow of making an immoral argument that torture works. That wasn’t my reading as I argue here.

This revisiting of the film and the arguments surrounding it made it obvious to me that the message “torture works” is precisely the message the current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison before him, and several former Prime Ministers including Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have sent to the world since the indefinite detention, off-shore and previously in the hell holes of Woomera and Baxter, of waterborne asylum seekers began.

They are not even particularly subtle about conveying this message: forcing women, children and men to live in circumstances in which they are tortured will deter others from attempting to seek asylum in Australia. It’s that stark.

To dissuade attacks from rusted on ALP supporters: Paul Keating built Woomera. I went there. It was one of Dante’s circles of hell. So please don’t come at me with the usual defence of your political party’s position on asylum seekers. There’s a bee’s dick of difference between the major parties.

Every time politicians insist that bringing refugees from Manus and Nauru to Australia will “start the drownings at sea again”, he or she is arguing, to the world, that “torture works.”

Frank Brennan, John Menadue, Tim Costello and Robert Manne have here proposed a solution to the current ghastly impasse. Their proposal retains the turn-back policy:

We believe there is no reason why the Turnbull government cannot do now what the Howard government previously did – maintain close intelligence co-operation with Indonesian authorities, and maintain the turn-back policy, while emptying the offshore processing centres and restoring the chance of a future to those we sent to Nauru or Manus Island three years ago or more by settling them either in Australia or, if any are willing, in other developed countries. Like Howard, Turnbull could maintain the offshore processing centres in case of an emergency.

Boats are to be turned back to their point of departure, usually Indonesia or in the case of Sri Lankan refugees, southern India where they continue to live as stateless people with few, if any rights.

The proposition put by Brennan et al would at least thwart the message that torture works, to which our politicians seem alarmingly attached. It’s by no means an ideal solution, but it could be our next step in addressing a situation that in its current manifestation is hideously wrong in every possible way.

Critiquing their proposition is a post in itself, and I won’t do that here.

As I argue Bigelow’s film demonstrated, the proposition that torture works is in itself a terrifying premise for debate. Who are we, that we would engage in such a debate in the first place?

It isn’t about whether or not torture works. It’s about torture even being considered, and then implemented as an option. You might argue that no politician foresaw or planned the circumstances that have evolved on Manus and Nauru, and you’d likely be correct. So we have come to torture by accident, rather than by design. Having arrived at that point, even accidentally, we are culpable and every day we reinforce the message that torture works, we add to our burden of culpability. What was initially accidental, thoughtless, ignorant, uncaring, politically self-seeking becomes, in the maintaining of it, deliberate.

Which puts us in the company of the CIA and its propaganda, does it not? Not to mention Donald Trump.

This article was originally published on No Place For Sheep.


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Screaming Freedom: Day of the Imprisoned Writer

By Janet Galbraith

‘… the protection of the right to freedom of expression – the freedom to express ideas without fear of attack, arrest or other persecution – has been at the heart of International PEN’s work since it was formed in 1921. PEN’s Charter pledges that all members will oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible’.

November the 15th 2015 marks the 34th anniversary of the annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer, ‘an international day that recognises writers who have suffered persecution as a result of exercising their right to freedom of expression’. Each year PEN International, its members and other concerned writers mark this day to raise awareness of the imprisonment, killings and threats writers are subject to.

Seldom has there been a focus on the persecution of imprisoned writers within Australia. Two notable cases are those of two writers detained in the early to mid 2000’s in Australia: Cheikh Kone who became International PEN’s first major Australian writer in prison and Iranian writer, journalist and political activist, Ardeshir Gholipour. Both were freed after a PEN International campaign. Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani held in detention on Manus Island for 27 months has recently been named an honorary member of PEN and his case for asylum supported by the human rights organisation.

Notably PEN International’s approach to the Australian’s government in 2004 resulted in communications between the Australian government and the noted human rights group and the freedom of the above writers. This year the letter sent to the Australian government by PEN International on behalf of Behrouz Boochani has garnered no response whatsoever. This is not terribly surprising as many working in solidarity with those detained in Australia’s immigration detention industry have noted that silence and obfuscation are one of the hallmarks of the Australian government’s (non)response to concerns of human rights abuses.

This year Australia has become under increases observation by PEN International as freedom of expression and information is further curtailed and legislated against. Sydney PEN informs us that:

“… at the recent PEN International Congress in Quebec City, the first resolution adopted by the Assembly of Delegates of PEN International, was about Australia’s Anti-Terrorism Laws. The resolution relates to the constraint of freedom of expression in the name of countering terrorism, especially about operations on Manus Island and Nauru relating to asylum seekers”.

This comes at a time when many international human rights organisations speak out against the Australia’s failure to comply with international law and conventions and as the litany of human rights abuses, cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment of people seeking asylum grows. When the Turnbull Government is asked for comment on conditions ‘tantamount to torture’ on people in off-shore detention camps, the strategy seems to be the same as that offered the UN and other international bodies: silence and obfuscation. This is not a new strategy nor is it specific to Australia. Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites’ founding members Professor Perera and Professor Pugliese have identified “parallels between the US extra-legal prisons at Guantanamo and elsewhere and our Pacific equivalents” naming the off-shore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru as “Australia’s version of the secretive US ‘black sites‘ that operated during the war on terror”.

Writers detained in Australia’s black sites on Manus and Nauru, as well as the immigration gulags on Christmas Island and throughout the mainland of Australia, bear much of the brunt of these secretive operations and the deliberate curtailing of freedom of information and freedom of expression. Many writers involved with Writing Through Fences, a loosely connected group of writers writing from within Australia’s immigration detention industry, report being subject to intense surveillance, beatings, imprisonment without charge, prolonged detention, unnecessary restraint, isolation, threats of rape, and denial of appropriate medical treatment in attempts to silence them.

The breaking of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers, by successive governments in Australia has been discussed in terms of the Border Force Act that sees workers and journalists who disclose human rights abuses within Australia’s detention industry at risk of imprisonment. However, such discussions have rarely included recognition that writers and human rights defenders detained by Australia in our black sites and mainland detention gulags are themselves subject to cruel, degrading and in human punishment as a result of their work.

Mark Isaacs highlight the targeting of writers: “the Nauruan police took Dev away from the camp in handcuffs. They said to him, ‘Goodbye Mr Journalist’, an implication that this was revenge for him having contact with Australian media”. Behrouz Boochani writes in a report to the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders: One time they put me in the jail after the hunger strike. You know in Foxtrot we had no violence at that time. I was in jail just for reporting to the outside about the hunger strike. He writes further, in a private letter, I remember when they moved me from the Lorengau jail to Charlie the officers said: “He is in here because he is a journalist”.

Many of those writing from within immigration detention centres are forced to withhold or change their names for fear of further punishment. At the same time, most of these people also speak of writing as their responsibility, privilege and duty. Others have reluctantly become writers in order to survive. One man detained on Manus Island for 27 months has said to me: “I am not a writer but I must write. I must write to tell the world what is being done to us. I must write to defend our right to live”.

Within this context, writing from within these black sites and detention gulags is understood to be a life-giving practice of survival and a courageous and necessary tool of resistance. A young man from Myanmar incarcerated in Manus Camp wrote to me earlier this year:

“I am a very different young man … I believe it will be difficult for you to accept that I have never been to school or college … With no education but a strong sense of determination I started learning English from scratch in the refugee camps … Being here I have written 1000 pages about my miserable life … Giving this privilege God wants me to raise my voice on behalf of millions of asylum seekers and refugees around the world who are being denied freedom in a safe place” (Khan – not real name).

Artist turned poet, FB writes:

“And the silence breaks its silence
setting free it’s songs from the depths.
The shouts of sleepers
release the voices of the voiceless
‘Freedom! Freedom!'”

A man held for 2 years in detention on Nauru writes:

“As a victim of injustice and politics, I was forced to face reality and the realisation that I needed to find a way to deal with all the emotions that I was unable to cope with. I took up writing and art” (Ravi).

Asserting existence and belonging before and in spite of displacement and detention a writer from Somalia, interred in immigration detention in Australia writes (excerpt from ‘A message from sweet home’):

You were born inside of me.
Why did you leave me like this?
Have you forgotten my warm nights and bright breezy days?
Have you forgotten lying on my sand with a big beautiful smile on your face?
Oh my dear… unforgettable moments!
You were fearless, a strong and beautiful child…
Come home.
On this Day of the Imprisoned Writer, Australia is in the spotlight. We are being held to account for the atrocities enabled by the tax payers of this nation and perpetrated in our name. We cannot say we do not know. The voices are many.

Writing Through Fences joins with Write of Asylum and calls on writers and human rights defenders to stand with, and open space for, those who speak and write from within the detention gulags.

“I die slowly, so slowly in this tight cocoon
with no space to shout’”(M, 2015).

Opening space is important and so is solidarity. When asked about his fears around his reporting from our black site on Manus Island, Boochani said:

“I feel more secure because a campaign to sup-port me has taken shape”.

We who are not detained do have a responsibility, privilege and duty to be aware of how we fill spaces, and how we may open them. We also have a responsibility, privilege and duty to listen to and stand with imprisoned writers, to call on the Australian government to end the punishment of those who speak and write from within the gulags and demand their closure. The voices of the writers imprisoned in our detention gulags are calling, they are screaming “Freedom! Freedom!”

Janet Galbraith
Founder and facilitator of Writing Through Fences
Coordinator Write of Asylum
Founding member of Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites


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How Australians Justify Torture

Torture is an evocative word. It conjures up images of shackles, chains, beatings, burnings, suffocation, and waterboarding. Almost everyone has watched a movie that incorporates some element of torture. Blind fold over face and knife to throat, submersion into a watery pit, a bucket full of scorpions. While this visual imagery is captivating, in reality the threshold as to what constitutes torture is not as high as many Australians think.

Graphic scenes of torture in movies and TV series are seen as entertainment and definitely not part of reality. It is only reality in third world, war torn countries, or in underworld gangs in faraway cities infested with organised crime. Certainly, state-sanctioned torture has no place in a Western, democratic, developed nation. There is an uncomfortable denial from many that Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers amounts to torture.

The Australian Government is unrepentant in its asylum seeker policy. Prime Minister Tony Abbott is determined to do whatever it takes to fulfil his ‘Stop the Boats’ election promise. This includes the guarantee that no genuine refugee, let alone economic migrant, who attempts to come to Australia by boat, will ever ‘call Australia home’. Those who do attempt the journey are either turned back to Indonesia or held in detention in offshore processing facilities on Manus Island or Nauru.

In March 2015, the United Nations slammed Australia for violating international obligations with its treatment of asylum seekers, stating that it amounted to torture. This followed the November 2014 ‘children in detention’ report from the Australian Human Rights Commission. The report found systematic exposure to and horrific cases of sexual and physical abuse of children in immigration detention.

Despite the independent and sustained reports of torture and abuse in a regime funded by the Australian taxpayer, many people remain apathetic. And the Government’s recently enacted laws which may see doctors, health workers and counsellors jailed for reporting abuse, will further remove any potential discomfort from the minds of many Australians.

But for those who do engage, the conversation often revolves around whether those subjected to abuse in detention are ‘genuine refugees’. In a strange twist of logic, it seems that the government-defined classification of the asylum seeker is entirely relevant as to whether a fellow human being should be tortured at the taxpayer expense.

“They’re not genuine refugees, they are economic migrants,” is a common response to any condemnation of the asylum seeker policy.

As if this makes all the difference.

Are these Australians really so callous as to endorse Government-funded torture, simply because a person, labelled an ‘economic migrant’, dares to seek a better life?

“They’re not real refugees. They should have waited their turn. It was their choice to get on a boat. If they can afford to pay people smugglers, they can afford a visa.”

Are Australians, as a nation, really saying that where they believe a person is not escaping torture, genocide or persecution, it is acceptable to detain and torture them for simply seeking a new life in another country? Are Australians actually comfortable with their tax dollars being spent on this?

The assumption behind Abbott’s policy is that the people smuggling business will be thwarted by removing all hope of settlement in Australia. Abbott has made it clear that “If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door.” He believes that if there is no chance of seeking a better life, the incentive to get on a leaky boat is removed. But desperate people, escaping persecution, have little option when the alternative to getting on a boat is death in a jungle.

And the Government, in its failure to acknowledge that the vast majority of asylum seekers are genuine refugees, will no longer even ask if a person will face torture if returned to their country of origin before turning back a boat.

The Australian Government is quite clearly telling all asylum seekers, regardless of their personal situation, that if they want safety and security, Australia won’t help. If they make it to Australia by boat, they will be locked up indefinitely in detention. Their babies will spend their formative years exposed to abuse. Their punishment for seeking a better life is torture.

The same Government is telling Australians, if they want a better life, get a good job with good pay. Earn or learn. Have a go. If they can’t get a job, move to a different location.

The recent rage surrounding the ‘housing affordability’ debate and ‘tampon tax’ campaign highlights the contrast between white Australian expectations and the reality for those seeking asylum.

First home buyers, faced with rising house prices in major cities, have rightly been offended by out-of-touch Treasurer Joe Hockey’s flippant advice that they should get a good job with good pay if they want to buy a house in Sydney. But while many of these people may be currently living with their parents in the leafy suburbs, in a share house near the CBD, or renting a perfectly suitable home, asylum seekers are housed in barely liveable conditions that are ‘rat-infested, cramped and very hot’.

Australian women, angry that essential health and hygiene products are taxed as ‘luxury items’, are well within their rights to lobby for change. However it is no surprise that a Government who considers pads and tampons ‘luxury items’ for Australian women, has no concerns about restricting access to sanitary products for asylum seekers. Abbott might think a little differently if it were his wife and three daughters walking around with blood clots running down their legs.

If housing affordability comments and unfair taxes can cause so much outrage amongst Australians, why doesn’t the torture of asylum seekers?

The hypocrisy in the messages is astounding.

One group of people is subjected to torture, cruel and inhumane treatment for seeking a better life, while another group is actively encouraged to do so. And what is the difference?

Only people lucky enough to be ‘Australian’ are entitled to better their circumstances. Only people who already have a pretty good standard of living are entitled to improve their situation. It is not the responsibility of Australia to help asylum seekers. But not only that, if they come to us for help, we will torture them.

If a person is from a country destroyed by war, a minority persecuted in their homeland, stricken by poverty, we will make their life so hellish in our detention centres they would rather face persecution at home.

The ‘Stop the Boats’ policy has never been about saving lives. It was always a populist tactic to appeal to voters who believe the media rhetoric around ‘queue jumping’ and ‘illegal immigrants’. While Australians fear that ‘economic migrants’ will steal their jobs, there will always be support for draconian asylum seeker policies and no widespread condemnation of appalling conditions.

The Australian Government spends more than $1.2 billion a year on offshore detention facilities, endorsing torture, and physical and sexual abuse. It has promised to pay Cambodia $40 million to accept refugees; a country known for human rights abuses. That is a lot of money which could be spent in Australia, boosting the local economy and creating jobs for Australians.

There is no justification for the way the Australian Government is treating asylum seekers.

None at all.

It should make no difference at all if a person is a genuine refugee or economic migrant. They must be processed quickly, humanely and allowed to get on with their lives.

Staying silent is condoning the torture.


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